If New York is the big apple and LA the big orange, Belgrade has to be the big red pepper. They were piled shoulder high when we arrived in the summer and were somehow still showing up in the green markets in mid-November. Serbs love their peppers. They show up on every menu, mostly as a splash of colour on skewers of grilled meat, and also as ajvar, a tasty red pepper meze dip, that I am suspicious every one has their own special recipe passed down from their grandmother. Along with its evil twin, kajmak (a deliciously, decadent cream cheese spread that is about 1000 calories per teaspoon), ajvar goes with everything: kicking up grilled meats, salads and sandwiches to a whole other notch.
It was a common site to see men returning from the open air markets carrying two bursting grocery bags of just red peppers. Their wives had obviously sent them off to get supplies while they prepared giant pans of boiling water, ready to jar and stash the season’s ajvar supply. Simultaneously, all over the city during the weekends of late summer and early fall, these same guys could then be seen grilling the peppers in the open air, until the skins were black and the vegetables ready to be processed into Ajvar. Recipes often include some grilled eggplants too, to add a little bulk and extra smokiness, I think.
Here’s a recipe in case you feel like making it:
- 1 kilo red peppers (Serbians use the long, thin variety but bell peppers would work)
- 1 medium eggplant
- 10 cloves of garlic, mashed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
Grill the peppers and eggplant until charred all over and soft. Put the hot vegetables in a bowl and cover with a lid. They will slowly cool and sweat, so when they are cool enough to handle, the skins will come out easily. Scrap away the blackened pepper skins, removing the stalks and seeds. Scoop out the eggplant flesh.
Put the pepper and eggplants into a mixer along with all the other ingredients. Blend until smooth. Transfer to a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and season with more salt and pepper to taste, if needed. Let cool to room temperature then transfer to an airtight container and store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.